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The signs of impending doom aren’t yet visible to the casual diner at Kabul Caravan. The dining room is still, as one friend puts it, not the kind of place you’d want to dusta baroque exhibit of exotic gowns, antique weaponry, and curvy lamps that you wouldn’t want to brush against for fear of stirring a slumbering genie. The Afghan food remains among the best in town (look on the specials list for the summery dish of chicken crowned with rice, crushed pistachios, and curls of orange peel), and co-owner Khalil Rahmani delivers it with quicksilver efficiency (“That comes with a saladI’ll get it right away”). When I ask him about rumors of the restaurant’s forthcoming demise, his face stiffens. “We’re in a state of shock,” he says.
At the beginning of April, Rahmani and his wife and business partner, Najia Rahmani, were told by their landlord, Wilma Roumel, that they had 30 days to pack up the Caravan and vacate the space that they’ve occupied for the past 20 years in the Colonial Village Shopping Center, a restaurant-heavy strip mall in Arlington. The Rahmanis aren’t the only tenants in a state of shock. That day in early April, Roumel more or less cluster-bombed the mall with notices to vacate. Also on the casualty list: Pho 75, the flagship location of a small but celebrated chain of Vietnamese noodle houses; Thai House, which has been in the mall for more than two decades; Village Bistro, a much-loved neighborhood French-Italian restaurant; and the Arlington Grill, one of only two venues in Arlington that stage topless dancing.
Given the suddenness of the notices and the short time the renters have to vacate, most of Colonial Village’s tenants aren’t sure what comes next. There’s already a sign posted by the cash register at Pho 75 saying that the restaurant will soon close. Arlington Grill proprietor Lou Gatti expects that he’ll follow suit, though he’s heard that the landlord will now be giving tenants until mid-May. Baha Asli, a manager at Village Bistro, says that the restaurant’s ownership is currently looking for a new location; he expects the owners will comply with the notices to vacate, but the restaurant’s waiters have been telling diners that the Bistro will be open for several more months before it finally moves.
The majority of the mall’s tenants were on month-to-month leases, but Najia Rahmani says that her rent agreement stipulates that Roumel give her six months’ notice if she should ever want the Caravan to clear out. So Najia Rahmani has no plans of moving. “I told Wilma that I’d talk to her in a court of law,” proclaims the restaurateur. “We have no trouble getting another place in this area. We just don’t like being pushed out.”
Roumel didn’t return phone calls, but according to her leasing agent, as well as Colonial Village tenants and the Arlington County Department of Economic Development, the landlord wants to replace the mall’s existing renters, most of which are restaurants, with large national chainsmany of which could be restaurant chains. According to Mark Ratner, an agent with the Eisner Co., which is spearheading the project, Roumel intends to spend roughly $1 million renovating the shopping center. The Rahmanis obtained a copy of the preliminary plans for the building’s face lift. The document includes names such as St. Louis Bread, Ritz Camera, and the Hair Cuttery. Rahmani puts her finger on the name printed in the space on the plan where the Caravan currently resides: Chicken Out.
Ratner points out that no agreements have been reached with new renters, and that, in fact, Ritz Camera and the Hair Cuttery won’t be among the mall’s future tenants. All he knows at this point is that the mall will be made up of “national-type retailers.” As for the mall’s current tenants, he says, “It does not appear at this time that any of the existing restaurants would become a part of the renovated center.”
Although squabbles between restaurateurs and their landlords are far from unusual, the tenants of the Colonial Village Shopping Center are not a common bunch. The strip mall is one of the few in these parts that actually add cultural value to their communities. There’s no market research linking the hodgepodge of businesses, which also include the Colonial Village Barber Shop, a mall tenant for 38 years, and El Chaparral, a well-regarded Latino grocery. Thai House is a quintessential ethnic jointone of the local progenitors of its cuisineand the clubby Village Bistro could easily take its unpretentious versions of Euro classics and serve them on the Upper West Side. Kabul Caravan counts Madeleine Albright among its regulars.
For fans of its soups, Pho 75 is a monument, plain and simple. It’s the site of the first interesting meal I ever had around here, and today, just walking into the place gets me going. The dank feed hall looks to be designed by the same guy who built the nation’s VFW posts. The mingling scents of beef and fresh basil perfuming the air foreshadow what you came for: pho and only pho, and it comes quicksometimes, seemingly, a few moments before you do. Senators can keep their steaks; I’ll take my beef this way, sliced almost see-through thin and submerged into a heady broth brimming with noodles and greens. Condiments don’t cost extraonly very good tippers leave this place having spent more than eight bucksso you can apply them liberally, especially the sprouts and the chili paste. (Title line of the e-mail hipping me to Pho 75’s demise: “This is a disaster!”)
“These are really renowned restaurants,” Gatti says of his neighbors. “And [the landlord] is not only throwing them out, [she is] saying, ‘We’re going to have other restaurants in here, and it’s not going to be you.’ That’s pretty cold.”
Najia Rahmani agrees. The collected media awards and restaurant reviews posted on the walls of Village Bistro, Kabul Caravan, and Pho 75 could probably cover a small billboard. When Roumel tells her that the bank providing the renovation money is insisting that the newfangled center be filled with “names,” Rahmani says she has a tough time sympathizing: “What better name than mine? I’ve been here 20 years.”
Arlington Grill, 1713 Wilson Blvd., Arlington, (703) 527-1508.
Kabul Caravan, 1725 Wilson Blvd., Arlington, (703) 522-8394.
Pho 75, 1711 Wilson Blvd, Arlington, (703) 525-7355.
Thai House, 1731 Wilson Blvd., Arlington, (703) 527-5772.
Village Bistro, 1723 Wilson Blvd., Arlington, (703) 522-0284.Brett Anderson
Eatery tips? Hot plates? Send suggestions to firstname.lastname@example.org. Or call (202) 332-2100 and ask for my voice mail.